Anne Hailes: The buzz of Vespa's 'little wasp'

The formation of the Ulster Vespa Club in December 1954

SOMETIMES you just have to switch off and think of something funny. For instance, I wither at the thought of the day I was going to interview a painter I admired and a big name in the world of art.

I duly painted my face and was quite pleased with the results except for one thing - I had three spots that needed camouflaging.

Out with the white concealer which I dabbed on well and truly before applying more Golden Glow foundation. Phone rings, dash off to deal with the call, getting late for my appointment, grab my notebook and pen and I'm away.

Very nice chat, he was very charming and had a winning smile the whole time we talked. Got home pleased with the morning's work, glanced in the mirror only to see this golden glow face looking like a clown with big white spots on each cheek and one on my chin.

I can laugh now but I was horrified at the time.

Then there was the time the Opera House had a grand opening of something - all the great and the good were there and so was I. I was acting a bit 'luvvie' - waving across heads, calling greetings, completely carried away with myself and mingling like a right diva... When two girls came up to me I reached for my pen to sign their autograph books but that's not what they wanted. Instead one whispered: "Do you mean to have three big blue rollers in your hair?"

This diva disintegrated into a heap and ran for the ladies loo. Embarrassed or what.

Funniest of all was way back in the 60s. My friend had a pale blue Vespa scooter and was the envy of us all. During a lunch break she invited me to, "Hop on the back and we'll go through town and show off."

OK. Pencil skirts were in fashion so we both hoisted them up almost to our waists and set off. Down Donegall Place, stopped at the lights at Anderson and McAuley's (it was next door to Primark in those days) and we were on a high.

Everyone was looking at us or, more accurately, the Vespa (Italian for wasp), and I relaxed with my feet on the ground and took time to look at ourselves in the big windows of the store.

Then my friend revved up, shot off and left me crouched in the middle of the road, legs akimbo and skirt up to my waist. The image was not the best but I got a round of applause.

I was not as elegant as Audrey Hepburn on the scooter of reporter Gregory Peck in the film Roman Holiday. Cinemagoers were enchanted by her and everyone wanted a Vespa and it became the darling of many film stars after that.

Publicity was high and 100,000 little wasps were sold immediately after the film was released; by the late '80s that figure had jumped to 10 million.

However, in the 1960s it was relatively new to us, having been introduced to the public in 1946.

Piaggio, the manufacturer, developed the two-wheel wonder after its aircraft factories were bombed during the Second World War and it was a huge hit.

Then it was a 98cc two-stroke engine with three speeds for the purists; today, like so much of life, many are battery powered.

Mark Cooke from Carrickfergus who led the Vespa cavalcade during the journey from Titanic Slipway to Carrickfergus Castle in 2018

There are Vespa Clubs all over the world and many members came to Northern Ireland in 2018 to celebrate the Vespa World Day - 2,500 gathered at the Titanic slipway before flying off on runs throughout the countryside.

The club was formed in 1954 but as cars became more affordable the Vespa fell out of favour. It was reformed in the 1980s, and the World Day in 2018 brought many past members together to join colleagues from countries around the world.

There are clubs in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, America and Vietnam to name but a few and there is a great coming and going between them all. Apparently one man even rode to the North Pole. Can this be true?

Ricky Darrah from Belfast is a founding member of the Ulster Vespa Club's current incarnation and a keen historian of the local movement. He confirmed that there are a lot of Vespas around.

"But what happens now is they are usually kept for good days and Sunday, rather than a commuter tool, and two weeks ago over 100 gathered for an outing in aid of a cancer charity. The new generation of Vespa is a sophisticated machine," he explained.

"Depending on the model, some can reach up to 80 miles an hour and they are allowed on motorways. Still petrol-driven as electric models are still in their infancy, they are smooth, easily ridden and efficient."

Apparently they are favourites of men with a midlife crisis as most accidents involve over those of 50-plus... In the 1960s one of these beauties was a serious investment and dealers were the first to introduce hire purchase into the equation.

"In those days a standard scooter would set you back around £125; today, top of the range is around £7,000. Times change, but so does the engineering that goes into these scooters."

Local man Artie Bell, the famous motorcycle road racer, was the first Vespa dealer. Today McCrum's of Portadown is the local trader with all the answers, basic training information, insurance and licensing, as well as all the machines you could wish for.

All this reminds me of the funny going round at the moment. Man goes into a store and picks up a tin of fly killer. He asks the young man packing the shelves, "Is this any good for wasps?" The reply? "No, it kills them." You've gotta laugh...

Richard would love to hear from anyone with links to the Ulster Vespa Club, past or present. Contact him at

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